Global collaboration key to advancing scientific research, says Sarah Al Amiri

New Minister of State for Public Education and Future Technology speaks at World Economic Forum

Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Future Technology, and chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, spoke of the value of international collaboration. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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International collaboration is vital to efforts to harness scientific research to tackle vital issues such as climate change and the future of health care, an Emirati minister said at the World Economic Forum on Monday.

Speaking at a session titled Safeguarding Global Scientific Collaboration, Sarah Al Amiri, Minister of State for Public Education and Future Technology and chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency, highlighted that most issues addressed by science were global rather than local.

She told the five-person panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland, that it was important to build collaboration into research agendas.

“One of our key objectives of research and development is to utilise international collaboration as a mechanism to increase the impact and outcomes of science,” said Ms Al Amiri, who was appointed to her new ministerial position on Sunday.

Because many issues that science deals with, such as climate change, health care and coastline transformation, are global, Ms Al Amiri said there need not be any tension between national objectives and global scientific collaboration.

It was also vital, she told delegates, to ensure scientific funding was consistent, regardless of changes in government priorities.

“Science is long term and solving issues needs to be long term,” she said.

“There are not aspects that you can pick and choose or change year-on-year or every five years.”

Scientists should help set global agenda

Ms Al Amiri said scientists should have an input into government scientific policy, highlighting that in the UAE several advisory groups for particular areas of science had been set up to determine national priorities.

“Scientists have a say when it comes to the division of the priority areas,” she said.

“They have a voice on the table so it doesn’t become a single top-down lens and doesn’t become a lens driven by industry … ensuring every voice is equal.”

While governments should fund fundamental science, Ms Al Amiri said they should also demonstrate “actionable on-the-ground changes” that resulted from research, as this could make the public understand the importance of science.

Helping public understand value of research

On a similar theme, Prof Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council, said more should be done to ensure the public understood how science worked, as this could make them value research findings.

“What I would do is make every child begin to learn in kindergarten the value of the scientific method,” Prof Leptin said.

“The reason we have mistrust from society in science is because society does not understand the scientific method. It does not understand what our ‘truth’, which they doubt, is based on.”

Dr Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of scientific journal Nature, who chaired the session, suggested that publications such hers carried out “curation and synthesis” of scientific research to ensure the findings of research were understood and gaps in knowledge highlighted.

Covid-19 shows importance of unity

Discussing openness and collaboration, another speaker, Dan Vahdat, co-founder and chief executive of healthcare technology company Medopad, said there were clear examples where a lack of scientific co-operation was harmful.

“There’s a huge competitiveness between scientists, between healthcare providers, between hospitals that are sources of science and so on,” he said.

“Sometimes they don’t share care pathways that can lead to saving lives. That’s why you go to … institution X in the US because they do cancer management of breast cancer better because they use a very unique care pathway that some university hospital in the UK doesn’t, or vice versa.”

He said researchers could “do more” when it came to co-operating and sharing data, citing international scientific co-operation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scientific research should, he said, be open source and free to access, in contrast to the current situation, where some journals charge hefty fees for material to be read.

One factor that could hamper scientific collaboration, said Dr Fabiola Gianotti, a researcher from Italy who is director general of the CERN particle physics research centre in Switzerland, is “a global decline of trust”.

“Governments [or] countries sometimes are not collaborating as they should be doing,” she said.

“It’s also interesting to note that science can build trust but science without openness and trust is not successful.”

Some problems of collaboration and trust between governments when it came to science resulted from the dual use of technology, Dr Gianotti said, a likely reference to the possibility that inventions could sometimes be adapted for, in particular, military purposes.

It was nevertheless important, Dr Gianotti said, for countries to ensure that researchers were able to collaborate with scientists abroad, even when their respective governments were “not friends”.

Updated: May 23, 2022, 4:32 PM